Joe Zawinul is the unsung hero of the "Fusion Revolution." A key figure in modern jazz, the Austrian-born keyboardist was an architect and a founding father, along with Miles Davis and others, of the style of music that came to be known as "fusion."
In 1959 Zawinul emigrated to America, where he played with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and singer Dinah Washington. He then joined alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley in 1961 for much of the 1960s, and wrote the soulful hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Soon after, at a crucial time in jazz history, the keyboardist hooked up with Davis with the tune "In a Silent Way" — featured on Davis's groundbreaking album of the same name — which ventured into electronic territory. Zawinul was also a major contributor to Bitches Brew.
"That was my sound!" Zawinul says. "I brought that sound to Miles in the first place. Through me, he got turned on to electronics. That's what good musicians do: turn each other on to good things. It was a give-and-take. It was not a master-pupil situation. It was a friendship and an exchange of thoughts and philosophy."
Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter both played with Davis during this period. They also went on to form the jazz superband Weather Report in 1970. What did they take with them from the master of cool jazz? "Very little, I must tell you," confides Zawinul. "I mean, I was always influenced by Miles because of his beautiful playing, but not influenced to the point that we were trying to copy anything. We always were different.
"We knew how to space and we knew how to play off one another," Zawinul explains of the group. "We still had that jazz thing. We had a couple of R&B oriented things, but in general, we played some serious forward jazz grooves with a stronger beat! I always like that. I liked jazz, especially from the bebop era, but what I missed in most of the jazz players is that they were so damn light! Always just swimming. We were able, with that band, to get an incredible power and we turned on so many people through this music. It was unbelievable. And for that, I will always be happy.
"A day of playing is a ritual day," continues Zawinul. "Because it's a sanctuary when you're up there onstage. You are on a place by yourself. That's the most gracious gift to be allowed. To go up there and make a living with what you love to do, you have to be grateful for that."
Weather Report left a huge footprint on the jazz landscape. "We were not really aware of it," says Zawinul. "Number One: we didn't care. Number Two: we were not competitive. We took it easy and formed something that grew like a fungus, man! It was incredible. We started really laid back, but I was always into R&B and I wanted to change. On the third album (Streetnighter), we made some changes, then more and more, then finally we had that sound that I liked and Wayne liked. It just kept on going. Each album was better than the last one."
Weather Report recorded 17 albums, including Heavy Weather, with perhaps the band's signature song, "Birdland," written by Zawinul. "Birdland," in versions by Weather Report, Manhattan Transfer, and Quincy Jones, has won separate Grammy Awards in three successive decades.
Weather Report morphed into many different forms with different members along the way. Zawinul is particularly proud of the foursome that toured and recorded the live album 8:30. It was he and Shorter along with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine.
"Jaco was a fantastic player!" he exclaims. "And Peter was coming out fresh, paint still on him, fresh and exploring. It was a great, great group! For four people to play 'live' like that, I don't think there is too much around today to compare to it. I can say in retrospect — 'cause you never know when you're doing it — that was the height." The momentous album won a Grammy.
In 1985 Zawinul and Shorter agreed to pursue separate musical directions. He first formed Weather Update and then a new band, the Zawinul Syndicate, whose albums have included two Grammy-nominated releases, My People in 1996 and World Tour in 1998. Zawinul released a solo project in 2000 titled Mauthausen, a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust.
Zawinul has won the Down Beat "best keyboardist" category 28 times and is the official Austrian goodwill ambassador to 17 African nations. In 2002 he received the first International Jazz Award. That year, he also released the CD Faces and Places. Today, at age 74, Joe Zawinul continues to be a great creator of musical beauty.
"Music is philosophy. It ain't about notes!" he says. "There are so many people playing so good, but they still cannot tell a story. We were storytellers."
The Joe Zawinul Syndicate performs October 27 and 28, 2006 at 8 p.m. in Rose Theater. (For tickets, call CenterCharge at 212-721-6500 or visit www.jalc.org.) "The band and I are very excited to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center," says the keyboardist. "People will be shocked! This is one great little music band with a unique rhythm concept and world-class players."
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He wrote the CD liner notes for Weather Report's Grammy Award-winning record, 8:30.